When Morgan MacCallum had been but a child, her father had told her that the smell of a place was as important as the sight of it, for odors could be fixed in the mind as surely as an image. Today, she was reminded of that as she squinted her eyes against the glare coming off the water and inhaled the ocean air.
The pebbly shoreline smelled of salt, of clams, and vaguely of sulfur, with a hint of wood smoke carried from her home when the wind shifted. She looked back at the house, noting the gaps in the stones and the thatch roof in want of repair. Morgan sighed. It was more than she could handle alone, and she prayed that Dougal and her father would return before the storms came.
She turned back, staring pensively out toward the inlet, absentmindedly tying her honey-blond curls with a string at the nape of her neck as she focused on some seabirds reeling and screaming over something in the distance. Black gulls and kittiwakes were common visitors, and the object of her love-hate fascination. She could study them for hours, and had learned that their flight patterns, screams, and posturing were all part of some avian language. But they’d grown nearly as familiar with her as she with them, and when the huge birds sought to aggressively raid her crab pots as she tried to haul them from the dark water, she cursed them as thieves.
Today the raucousness of the birds boded well. When they were fighting this early, it meant the waters were teeming with catch. With any luck, she’d bring in some fine fat crabs and the birds would be too preoccupied with fish to care.
Morgan leaned down, picking up the willow crab pots, and began lugging them to the skiff tethered in the water by a low sandbank that ran around the peninsular strip of land that had been her home for her entire nineteen years. The pebbles under her boots shifted in the shallow water as she walked, hoisting her skirt with her free hand.
The skiff rocked from the weight of the pots, and as she climbed in and settled on the roughhewn seat, she looked back at the house, hoping that Moira was staying off her feet. Her sister’s first pregnancy had been difficult, and so had the birth. Baby Donald had come quickly; there’d been no time to fetch the midwife who lived across the island. And although the child had been born healthy, Moira had been left weakened by the ordeal.
The birth had traumatized Morgan, who had never intended to deliver her own nephew. She shuddered now, remembering her sister’s screams, the blood, the sight of the baby’s head bulging from between Moira’s thighs. And she envied the men, as she so often did—envied them their freedom and their fighting and their travel and their trading, and cursed that she’d been born a woman.
“You should have been a lad,” her father had often told her, ruffling her unruly hair. And she’d agreed. In secret, she’d watched the men at their games, and had learned how to use a sword and a bow. But a lot of good it did her now. When her father had left with Dougal to trade with a village on another island to the south, she knew it was more than business he was after. A hard winter was expected; the fishing had been poor. She knew he’d likely be offering her hand to one of the men who’d expressed an interest. With her married, it would be one less mouth to feed.
Morgan pulled the oars of the skiff, feeling it bump along the little waves. The wind was kicking up, making each pull a struggle. The muscles of her arms, strong and lean from regular rowing, burned slightly as she made her way out to where the other crab pots were anchored. She searched the sky, puzzled at the absence of the gulls, which usually met her by now. She could still hear them screaming in the distance and decided she should be thankful.
She put the oars in the boat, allowing it to drift as she reached the first pot, its place marked by the white piece of driftwood bobbing above it. Morgan groaned with the exertion of pulling it in; this catch was decently heavy. Water sluiced off the sides of the willow pot as she hauled it over the side of the skiff. None of the baitfish she’d used remained amid the scuttling mass of crabs. Removing the line from the pot, she tied it to an empty one and pushed it overboard before moving on.
A rush of wind ruffled her hair, and Morgan turned her face into it and slowly raised her head as she caught the scent of smoke. It wasn’t the smell of wood smoke, but a stronger smell. Fear gripped her, and she stood, steadying herself as she shielded her eyes and looked toward the shore. The only smoke from her home was a white thread rising from the chimney. Another breeze hit her, a north wind. Something was burning somewhere. Something was burning on another island.
If her father had been with her, he’d have crossed himself. Robert MacCallum was a religious man who faithfully rowed each week to the neighboring island to attend church and break bread with the monks who lived at the monastery. When Morgan teased that he should join them, he’d throw back his head and laugh as he reminded her of his bawdy past, and she’d know then she was in for a rehash of the tale of how he’d met her mother, who’d spurned him until he stopped his fighting and drinking. Her father’s eyes would get misty then, and Morgan would have to look away, for she sometimes forgot how much he still missed her.
Sometimes she felt guilty for not going with her father to church, especially since Moira indulged him until the middle of her pregnancy when riding in the boat made her violently ill. Morgan would make excuses for not going, but both she and her father knew it was because she had lost faith after her mother—her beautiful mother—had stood up from the table one morning, claimed she felt dizzy, and uttered two words—Something’s amiss—before dropping dead where she stood.
Morgan fished the pots out of the water as she mused, and with them replaced with empty ones, headed to shore.
“You’re too late,” she said as she picked up the oars, for she could see the silhouette of a bird gliding toward the boat, its form backlit by the sun. But as the bird got closer, the smile on her face disappeared. This was no gull winging its way toward her; in fact, it was unlike any bird she’d ever seen. And when it landed on the bow of her boat, she could only stare as a cold feeling moved through her.
The bird was solid black, and quite large, with a thick, strong beak and sharp black eyes. It cocked its head and looked at her, shaking the spray out of its feathers as a man might shake water from his coat.
Morgan felt unnerved by the bird’s presence, but even more by its silent, assessing gaze.
“Whist!” she hissed, waving an arm at it. But the bird just croaked—a low, deep sound—and held its ground.
The boat was rocking from side to side. She could hear the crabs scuttling in the traps, the lapping of the water against the hull, the gentle wind. But beyond that, nothing. It was just her and the bird. She thought of her mother, of how her father said she believed in omens, remembering how the day before she died she’d claimed to have seen a great black dog on the dunes. Her father had laughed at her.
If this was an omen, did it mean she was going to die? Or someone close to her? Morgan felt the hair stand up on the back of her neck.
“Fine, stay there, you foul thing,” she said, picking up the oars as the bird turned to preen an oily black wing. Morgan began to row, pulling hard as she could against the shifting wind, hoping the rocking of the boat would dislodge her feathered hitchhiker. But he stayed, and she tried not to look at him as she rowed for home, hoping that she’d find Moira and little Donald safe.
The sound of the bow finally scraping against the sand was music to Morgan’s ears. The bird was still perched on the boat, and as soon as the skiff came to a stop, she jumped out, not caring that the water was soaking the hem of her woolen skirt. The sodden fabric slapped against her lower legs as she headed toward the house at a brisk walk, her heart in her throat, the sound of her mother’s last words in her head.
But there was nothing amiss. Nothing at all. When Morgan pushed open the door, there was her sister, sitting in a chair by the hearth fire, little Donald latched onto her pale breast.
Moira looked up at her younger sister and smiled. “You’re back.”
“Yes…” Morgan glanced back outside. In the distance she could see her boat, the black bird lifting from the bow and heading north. She thought of the north wind, the smell of smoke.
“Is something wrong?”
Morgan shook her head.
“No.” She forced herself to adopt a casual tone. “It’s just windy out.” She walked over to her sister and leaned down to drop a kiss on her brow and then on Donald’s downy head. “You look well, sister.”
“I feel more like myself today,” Moira said. “But it’s about time. It’s been a fortnight. I can’t lie abed anymore. Father and Dougal will be back on the morrow. I feel it.”
Morgan walked over and began pulling clothing down from a line strung across the room. Her sister was more like their mother than she was—from the red hair to the belief in omens and signs and feelings. She thought of the black bird, and was glad Moira hadn’t seen it.
“Well, that would be a good thing, their coming back. The roof is in need of fixing, and I can’t haul up the thatch alone.”
“I could help,” Moira offered.
“No,” she said firmly, and was relieved when her sister didn’t argue back. “Besides, if you say they’ll be home on the morrow, then I believe you.”
Moira smiled down at her infant. “I can’t wait to see Dougal’s face when he lays eyes on his son for the first time.”
“And Da,” Morgan said. “Although I think he was secretly hoping for a lass so you could have named her after Ma.”
Moira hefted the baby up on her shoulder and patted his back until he rewarded her with a lusty burp. She rose from her chair, pulling the top of her chemise back over her bare breast. “Well, maybe the next one can be a Mary, although Dougal won’t complain if it takes longer to have a daughter. He wants a houseful of lads, that one.”
Morgan dropped the clothes into a basket, swallowing her desire to offer her opinion about Dougal’s desire for sons. Could a son really be any more capable than a daughter? Robert MacCallum was not the man he’d once been. When Morgan thought of how she’d helped him with the fishing and the sheep, thought of how Dougal had diminished those efforts when he’d come to live with them after marrying Moira, it angered her. Dougal had yet to finish building a house for himself and Moira, and Morgan hoped when he returned he’d complete it. She’d miss her sister, and her adorable nephew, once they’d moved out. But she’d not miss her brother-in-law’s chiding her for offering to help with ‘man’s work’ she’d happily done without his assistance for so long.
“Were there many crabs?”
Moira’s words brought Morgan back to the present.
“Yes,” she said, remembering the catch.
“I can go out and start the pot.” Moira was laying the baby in the cradle. “Donald won’t mind, now that he’s got a full belly.”
“I’ll do it.” Morgan knew her sister was probably capable of hauling water to the large kettle that hung over the fire, but she preferred to do it herself. Work steadied a mind that never seemed to stop racing, and Morgan needed that now more than ever.
She reached up for another basket hanging from the rafter. “I’d best get the crabs first, before the gulls do,” she said, and headed back outside. Morgan wondered if Moira was right about Dougal and her father’s return. If she was, at least they’d be returning to a crab feast. There were still no seabirds above her boat. Morgan decided that after the tide went out, she’d forage among the rocks for some of edible seaweed to go with the crabs. She glanced up toward those rocks, but what she saw beyond them stopped her.
At first she thought her father and Dougal were returning early, for it was certainly a boat coming toward her at a rapid clip, just parallel to the shoreline. But then she noticed the shape, and her arms fell heavy to her sides as fear seized her, and the basket fell on the sand at her feet.
She’d never seen a boat like this before, had never seen any vessel so strange. The bow rose high above the water, higher than the height of a man. Even from the distance, Morgan could make out the carved head on the top, the shape reminiscent of the beasts her father swore lurked in the lochs of his youth. The back of the ship rose just as high, the end carving clearly meant to represent the tip of the creature’s tail.
Never had she seen such a fearsome boat. Who traveled in such a thing? There were many rowers, judging by the oars. The vessel was moving faster now, and she heard a call and saw a large man near the bow point in her direction. The menacing head of the boat turned toward her like a monster eyeing its prey.
“No…” Instinct told her to run and she did, heading back to the house. She fell in the sand halfway to the door, tripped by the still-damp hem of her skirt, but sprang back to her feet, lifting her skirts now as she sprinted. Her lungs were burning by the time she burst through the door. Her sister looked up from where she was just starting some washing, and the baby screamed.
“Morgan?” Moira’s voice was quavering. She knew something was wrong, and how could she not? Morgan usually hid concerns from her sibling. She could not now. Outside, she could hear distant voices, male voices, carried on the wind.
“Hide.” She picked up the screaming infant from the cradle and thrust him at his mother. “Hide, Moira!” She pulled her toward the back door, toward the cellar door.
“What’s wrong, Morgan! Tell me!”
“Men… men in a boat. I don’t know.” She flung open the door and looked at her sister. “I only know you have to hide!”
“Perhaps it’s Father?” Moira’s voice was shaking.
“It’s not Father,” Morgan said. “You must hide!”
“Me! And what of you?”
“I’ll be down soon. Just do as I say!”
“Morgan…” Moira grasped her sister’s arm. “Come with me!”
“I will!” She jerked her arm away. “But just do as I say, or else you and your baby will die.”
“How do you know this?”
Morgan felt another chill, as she recalled the coal black bird, its knowing eye. She’d never thought she had the gift of sight. Now she realized she’d been wrong. “I just know,” she said, and kissed her sister quickly before fixing Moira with a stern look. “Do as I say, or see Donald die.”
Terror filled her sister’s pretty face, and she hastened to obey. As soon as she was down the steps, Morgan shut the cellar door. She’d have to act fast now; she knew this. She had to protect Moira and the baby.
Morgan ran back inside. She could hear voices, louder now, could hear the clank of metal. Whoever they were, they were coming. Her mother’s carved wedding chest still sat at the foot of her bed. Morgan opened it and reached inside, moving aside her mother’s faded wedding dress and a pair of silver candlesticks. And there it was. She lifted the sword that had belonged to her grandfather and unwrapped it from the linen that covered it. She’d done it before, countless times, when her mother wasn’t looking. More than once she’d taken the sword onto the windswept hilltop to practice the moves she’d seen the men do.
She’d always imagined she would be brave—as brave as a man—were she to wield the sword for real. But as she hefted it now, her arms felt rubbery and her sweaty hands were shaking. But the people she loved were in danger, and she alone had to protect them. And Morgan, who’d always dreamed of wielding a sword for real, moved into position behind the door and waited, waited, for whatever hell was about to enter.